Storm Clouds Over Southern Labor

Sanitation Workers strike in Memphis in 1968

Atlanta   After the a two-ringed circus in Atlanta where I met with our the four graduate social work school interns who are working with the ACORN Home Savers Campaign for the next semester and the screening of The Organizer at the Andrew Young Center on campus, I got to visit with several veteran union organizers for a bit. It was cold, windy, and rainy outside, and that pretty much characterized the reports I was getting of the current labor organizing progress in the field. It was all uphill and in the teeth of the wind, both from outside forces and increasingly internal inertia.

One film watcher was an old veteran of the textile wars as an organizer for the legendary ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I asked him when he had worked them and when he said the late 1970s and early 1980s, I couldn’t resist mentioning Art Martin who had run a local in Arkansas earlier in the 70s and then later in the Carolinas. Sure enough, he had worked for Art in Charlotte, and was shocked to hear of his passing some years ago. I asked if he had noticed Art in several frames of the movie, and he laughed, saying he thought someone looked familiar, but didn’t place the context since the picture was of Art during the Quorum Court effort in Pulaski County 45 years ago. As for any talk about organizing in what’s left of the textile industry in the South? Not much to say there.

Ben Speight, who many claim is the best labor organizer in the Atlanta area and a former ACORN organizer as well, told the story of his efforts to organize 500 sanitation workers in a neighboring county with the Teamsters. Their effort over several years had won a couple of raises of the workers and a number of other improvements, but despite repeated efforts organizationally and politically, had failed to win either dues deduction or recognition for the union, so the effort was waning. He had been at a Martin Luther King breakfast before coming to the screening. He was surprised among all of the political speakers at the event that there had not been one speaker from the labor movement or any union, despite this being the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination while in Memphis supporting the strike of the garbage workers in that city.

Visiting with my old friend and comrade, Ken Johnson, who not so long ago retired as regional director of the AFL-CIO in the South, there wasn’t much good news from that quarter either. We spent time talking about the Southern Regional Council where he had worked before the AFL-CIO, because we couldn’t find much to say about big, new organizing either one of us was hearing about in the south. Going through the list of names we had in common, many of them had moved far afield to even find organizing or union work. Any discussion of developments at the NLRB or the Department of Labor was short shrift. No good news there.

One question that had come up after the screening asked about how social media was changing the organizing. The brother said he had observed people were more than willing to “post” something, but seemed to have no interest in hitting the streets or shops. The work and workers are here, but the connections aren’t coming together.

People still like to talk about organizing in the south, but not too many unions are doing any of it.

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Wall Street and Big Corporations Go Rental and It Means Trouble

ACORN Home Savers Campaign Crew in Atlanta gets organized to hit doors in metro Atlanta suburbs
l to r: Fred Brooks, Karimah Dillard, Marcus Brown, and Lou Sartor

Atlanta   Marcus Brown from North Carolina is new to the Atlanta area, and he has yet to fall in love with it. Marcus was my navigator as we teamed up to hit the doors on rent-to-own contract buyers in metro Atlanta as one of ACORN’s Home Buyers Campaign teams visiting throughout the area. I’ve hit a lot of doors in urban America and around the world. I’ve even hit a good number in rural areas on different campaigns and organizing drives. On union organizing drives I always knew we were in trouble when I drew names in the suburbs of this city or that, but I would never put my name on the top of any master list as a suburban organizer, but that may have to change. Marcus and I were in for a learning experience and some miles to drive it turned out as we plowed through our list. We were a half-hour outside of Atlanta working our way in through one small community after another, and we were in grassy yards, and cookie-cutter, aluminum siding suburbs, and never saw a white family all day. We also saw more “for rent” signs than we saw “for sale” signs, and, frankly, we didn’t see many of either in this red hot real estate market.

But, we started connecting the dots as we looked at the cases in point.

Freddie Mac announces a billion dollar fund to back up efforts to create rental housing last week. The article was scratching its head from sentence to sentence.

 

Even while we were walking up to the doors in Atlanta suburbs, I had an article I had pulled out of the Wall Street Journal in my pocket entitled “Wall Street is the New Suburban Landlord.” In the wake of the housing crisis a lot of Wall Street money and big time realty firms are specializing in renting single family homes in the suburbs. They are betting that in the wake of the Great Recession and housing implosion of 2008, the bloom is off the rose of housing ownership for many families. They estimate that more than 200,000 homes have been bought in a $40 billion spree of bottom fishing from the foreclosure crisis and flipping the homes into rental units. Where the foreclosure epidemic went viral in the South and Southwest, they fed at that trough.

In Atlanta, we were at ground zero it would seem. In a June 2017 estimate of the top markets for the largest single-family-home rental companies, Atlanta led with 24,075 homes on offer, Tampa-St. Pete had over 14,000, Phoenix, over 13,000, Miami almost 11,000, Charlotte right behind at 10, 570, Orlando over 9000, Dallas almost 9000, and Houston over 8000. You get the picture.

This also dovetails with a research report written by Elora Raymond at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank that found that the eviction rate in greater Atlanta was over 20% for rental units, and, hear the drumbeat now that will surprise no one, corporate owned rental properties evicted tenants at a significantly higher rate than privately owned landlords. She also noted that eviction rates are increasing significantly in markets all over the country.

Connecting the dots leads to some frightening conclusions where vacancy rates are low in hot markets and affordable housing is a mirage for working and lower income families. The business model depends on quick evictions and the extra cash from late payment fees as tenants try to scrounge to catch up with their landlords, who are now using the courts to pad their payments.

Just the kind of business that Wall Street would love obviously. But, just as we found on the doors, don’t think this is just an urban problem, it’s in the suburbs as well, and as gentrification has increased and rents have soared, many suburban neighborhoods are now populated with our families as well.

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